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The Sand Cat: A Small and Beautiful Animal of the Desert

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

What Is a Sand Cat?

The sand cat is a small and beautiful wild cat that is well adapted for life in the hot deserts of Africa, Arabia, and Asia. It's about the size of a house cat and has a light, sand-colored coat with darker stripes. Unlike the domestic animal, it has a wide head with large triangular ears that are positioned far apart. It's also known as the sand dune cat and has the scientific name Felis margarita.

Sand cats are generally nocturnal and secretive animals, although they are sometimes seen during the day. They usually spend their days sleeping in burrows or under scrub vegetation. At dusk, they emerge to hunt for prey, which they can hear moving over or under the sand. They seem to obtain most and perhaps all of the water that they need from their prey.

The global population of sand cats has been classified in the "Least Concern" category by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). This status is not completely certain, however. It's difficult for researchers to get an accurate count of the animals in an area because of their reclusive habits. Their distribution appears to be patchy. The animals are facing some threats, at least in certain parts of their range.

Distribution of the sand cat in the wild

Distribution of the sand cat in the wild

The word "cat" is often used to refer to any member of the family Felidae. I follow this custom. The family contains many cat-like species, Despite their similarities, the different species in the family have distinctive features. The sand cat has the scientific name Felis margarita. The scientific name of the domestic cat is Felis catus.

Physical Features of the Animal

The features of the sand cat that many people may notice first are the wide head, the short legs, the sandy color of the fur, and the darker stripes on the coat. The animal's eyes can be opened wide but often appear to be half closed.

The sand cat has soft, thick fur that is pale yellow-brown or grey in color. The fur is lighter on the chest and belly than on the back. The coat is decorated with darker markings, which are listed below. Different subspecies of the animal exist, and they have slightly different features.

  • A red-brown stripe extends from the outer corner of each eye down the cheek.
  • The forehead bears vertical lines that are darker than the surrounding fur.
  • The back of the ears is tipped with black.
  • The tail is also tipped with black and has a few black rings near the tip.
  • The cat has two dark bars on its forelegs
  • The animal also has dark stripes on its hind legs.
  • There is a dark wash over the back. This is often only slightly darker than the surroundings but is sometimes much darker.

Based on our current knowledge, sand cats weigh a maximum of seven and a half pounds. They are the second smallest member of the genus Felis. Only the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) is smaller. The sand cat sometimes looks bigger than usual due to the very thick fur that it develops in areas with cold nights. Although most people probably think of the animal in association with searing heat, it also encounters freezing cold.

Adaptations for Desert Life

Sand cats inhabit an environment with extreme temperatures, They live in sandy or rocky deserts that have sparse clumps of vegetation. The deserts are very hot on a summer day but may have a temperature below freezing at other times. The temperature may reach as high as 126 °F (52 °C) during the day and as low as 23 °F (- 5 °C ) at night, depending on the location and time of year. Given our inadequate knowledge of sand cat locations in the wild, the temperature range in some of their habitats may be even wider than this.

The animals' bodies have several adaptations to help them stay cool during the scorching day and prevent heat loss in the freezing cold. Their light fur color enables them to blend in with their environment and helps to prevent them from absorbing too much heat during the day. The thick coat also keeps them warm during the cold desert nights. In addition, sand cats have dense hair between their toes and over the pads of their feet. This hair insulates the paws from the hot ground.

The large ears of the cats give them sensitive hearing and are believed to help them detect the sounds of prey moving in the sand. The ears are very mobile and can be moved into a horizontal position or pointed downwards. The entrance to the ears contains long white hairs, which may protect them from sandstorms.

Felis margarita thinobia, a subspecies sometimes known as the Persian sand cat

Felis margarita thinobia, a subspecies sometimes known as the Persian sand cat

Despite the lack of water in the desert, sand cats are able to survive. They don't drink very often—if at all—and get the water that they need from their food. If water is available they will drink it, however.

Daily Life of a Sand Cat

Hunting

Sand cats are solitary hunters. They catch underground prey as well as animals moving over the surface of the sand. Their main food is small rodents, such as gerbils and jerboas. They also eat reptiles, including snakes and lizards, as well as some bird species. The snakes include certain venomous species. Local observers say that sand cats first stun a snake by swiping the reptile's head with a paw and then kill it by biting its neck. The animals bury their prey for future use if they are unable to eat it in one sitting.

Locomotion

When they are moving through an open area, sand cats often slink close to the ground with bent legs. They listen carefully for underground movements and sounds and then dig rapidly through the sand to catch their prey. They are excellent diggers but are not so good at climbing or jumping (although a captive animal named Canyon seems to have mastered climbing, as shown in the video below).

Territory

Sand cats maintain a territory. A cat sprays urine over vegetation and the ground to indicate its presence to other members of its species. It also releases secretions from scent glands on its cheeks and perhaps on other parts of its body. It doesn't seem to defend its territory, however, and appears to be a peaceful animal. This assumption may be due to our lack of knowledge. The animal buries its feces in the sand.

Burrows

Sand cats dig their own burrow, use an abandoned one created by an animal such as a desert fox, or enlarge a burrow created by a smaller animal, such as a rodent. They are most active at night when the temperature is lower, but they sometimes appear in the daylight. They can occasionally be seen sunbathing near their burrow.

An Israeli researcher using radio telemetry found that the cats in one area traveled an average of 5.4 kilometers a night as they searched for food. The researcher also discovered that a burrow wasn't occupied by the same animal every night.

Sand cats produce a barking sound as a long distance contact call, especially during the mating season. They also meow, hiss, growl, scream, and purr.

Reproduction and Kittens

The only time that sand cats come together is during mating. The female gives birth to two to four kittens, with three being the typical number. The gestation period is fifty-nine to sixty-six days. There may be one or two litters a year. The first litter may be born in April or May. A second litter may be born in October. The exact timing of reproduction depends on the region where the animals live.

The kittens are helpless at first but develop quickly. The leave the burrow when they are about five weeks old. It's thought that in the wild they leave their mother at between four and six months of age. In captivity, the animals have lived for up to thirteen years, or a little longer according to some sources.

Threats to the Population

Although the sand cat is a predator and catches prey, some predators prey on the animal. These include birds of prey, venomous snakes, foxes, jackals, wolves, and domestic or feral dogs. In some areas, dogs and domestic cats compete with sand cats for food. These animals may also transmit disease or attack the cats.

Even though the cats live in a harsh environment, their land is valued by humans. This is causing habitat loss and degradation in some areas. Land in the habitat is being used as a grazing area for domestic camels and goats and as a place to build human settlements and roads. In addition, off-road vehicles that are used for recreation are damaging land. Sand cats are sometimes caught in traps set for other animals.

In some countries, it’s now illegal to hunt the animals or to trap them for the exotic pet trade. Some of their habitats are protected as well. Unfortunately, the cats and their habitat are not protected everywhere in their range. Sand cats are sometimes shot or captured while sunning themselves. They are reportedly nonaggressive and are sometimes killed for sport. Another problem is that human fighting is taking place in some of the areas where the animals live.

If sand cats are aware of approaching danger during the day, they sometimes crouch down and close their eyes so that light can’t be reflected from the eyes. Coupled with their protective coloration, this often makes them hard to see.

Population Status of the Sand Cat

Four subspecies of sand cats exist (or six, in the opinion of some researchers). According to the IUCN, the species as a whole is of "Least Concern", but in some areas a subspecies is in trouble. For example, the cats are almost extinct in Israel and the subspecies in Pakistan is also endangered. The last assessment of the animal's population by the IUCN was done in 2014. The organization says that the population trend for the species is unknown.

In 2016, conservationists and animal lovers were excited to hear that three sand cats were living in the United Arab Emirates. The last animals were seen there in 2005. Researchers deliberately searched for the animals by setting up five motion-sensitive cameras in a likely habitat. Photos taken between March and December of 2015 revealed one male and two females in the area.

Our lack of knowledge about the overall population status of the animals makes it hard to know how urgent conservation is throughout their range. They are difficult to study. Their cryptic coloring makes them hard to see, as does their habit of closing their eyes when a person approaches and the fact that they are often nocturnal. The hair on the pads of their feet hides their footprints. The fact that they bury their feces also hides their presence and makes dietary analysis difficult. Access to sand cat habitats is sometimes difficult for researchers, especially in areas of human conflict.

The development of reliable survey methods is urgently needed. Furthermore, studies on the behaviour and ecology of the Sand Cat are crucial to apply appropriate conservation measures.

— IUCN Red List entry for the sand cat

Conservation

Organizations in different countries are breeding sand cats. Techniques such as in vitro fertilization and the transfer of frozen reproductive cells and embryos between zoo facilities are being used to try to keep the captive population genetically healthy. The process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) involves the union of eggs and sperm in lab equipment and then the transfer of embryos into the mother's uterus.

Zoos are controversial institutions, but successful captive breeding programs can help to preserve endangered species. It would be a great shame to discover that sand cats are in trouble over a large part of their range and that it's too late to help them. Taking action to protect the species now seems like a wise precaution.

References

  • Sand cat information from Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
  • Fact about sand cats from the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC)
  • A report about the animal from the Cat Specialist Group, Species Survival Commission
  • Information about the animals from Big Cat Rescue
  • Sand cats discovered in the UAE from Earth Touch News
  • The Felis margarita entry on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature

© 2012 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 23, 2015:

Thank you for the comment, Hannah.

Hannah on January 23, 2015:

Thanks for the info

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2012:

Hi again, Lozzirox. Thanks for your comments! It is tempting to keep a wild cat as a pet, as long as it isn't endangered, but exotic pets are hard to care for and keep happy, especially if they haven't been bred in captivity.

Lozzirox on October 20, 2012:

I wish that they weren't endangered so that I could have a pet one and not worry about them dying out :(

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 19, 2012:

Thanks for the visit, Lozzirox. I think that sand cats are cute too!

Lozzirox on October 19, 2012:

Sooooooooo cute!!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2012:

Thank you very much for commenting and for the share, Pcunix! I agree with you - sand cats are pretty animals.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on January 24, 2012:

Ooh.. very pretty animal. I'd never seen a picture before - or knew anything about them! I'm going to share this..

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2012:

Hi, chamilj. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree, sand cats are beautiful. They're fascinating animals as well.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, riaha. I appreciate them.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2012:

Thanks, cebutouristspot. Yes, sand cats are cute, although they're definitely not cuddly! Thanks for commenting.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2012:

Hi, Stephanie. Thank you for the comment. I love animals, including cats, too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment and the share, and for the information too, Kris! I appreciate them all.

chamilj from Sri Lanka on January 24, 2012:

They are really beautiful. Informative hub. Voted up!

rlaha from Spartanburg, SC on January 24, 2012:

Hi. These cats are such cute cats! Thank you for writing the article! Voted up and interesting!

cebutouristspot from Cebu on January 24, 2012:

That Cat look very cute. Too bad they live in the dessert. Nice kitty :D Thanks for sharing

Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on January 24, 2012:

I am an animal lover, especially of cats--both domestic and wild. I actually wrote a whole research paper on ocelots. But I have never heard about or seen sand cats before. Thanks for enligthening me!

Kris Heeter from Indiana on January 24, 2012:

Very interesting! I love that some group had the foresight to ship some cats out of the Middle East to conservation sites in 2000 to preserve the genetic diversity and the species in case of a disaster during Desert Storm. Great hub and I'll share it with my followers:)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 18, 2012:

Yes, the sand cat's face is interesting! It shows us that sand cats aren't domestic cats, even though the two animals have similarities. Thanks for the comment, Wesman Todd Shaw.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on January 18, 2012:

Well there's one I've never heard of! They've surely got a distinctive face. It's always good to see awareness and education spread of endangered species.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 18, 2012:

Hi, Eddy. Yes, sand cats are beautiful. I'd love to observe them in their natural habitat! Thanks for the comment.

Eiddwen from Wales on January 18, 2012:

Oh what a beautiful cat; I have to admit that I have never heard of them.

Thank you so much for sharing as I really enjoyed this one.

Take care and enjoy your day.

Eddy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 09, 2012:

Thank you for the comment and for all the votes, natures47friend! I appreciate your visit.

natures47friend from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand. on January 09, 2012:

Oh what a stunning kittie! Soooo cute...men and their wars. They do not think of other species with their selfishness. Thank you so much for writing about the sand cat...such a beautiful animal. Up , awesome and beautiful!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 08, 2012:

Thank you very much, Peggy. I too hope that sand cats have a successful future. It would be a great shame if they disappeared from the Earth.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 08, 2012:

Hi Alicia,

I watched all the videos and between those and your hub learned much that I did not know about sand cats. Hopefully they will be able to live and thrive in the wild for as long as our earth exists. It is a shame that these beautiful animals are impacted by changes in the environment and also wars between men. All the up votes except funny. Really enjoyed this hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 03, 2012:

Thank you, b. Malin. I appreciate your comment! I hope that sand cats stay safe and happy too.

b. Malin on January 03, 2012:

This Hub of yours on the Sand Cats is now one of my Favorites Alicia. They really are adorable...May they stay Safe and Happy! Loved the Videos as well, they were so Educational.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 03, 2012:

Yes, I agree, sand cats are cute and they do have interesting adaptations for desert life! Thank you for the comment, homesteadbound.

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on January 03, 2012:

How cute! They do look just like domestic cats. Although their ears are bigger, they do not seem to be out of proportion. I have never heard of them before and found it very interesting that they had hair on the bottom of their feet - a very interesting but useful adaptation.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 03, 2012:

Hi, CMHypno. I hope very much that sand cats are protected too. They are interesting and lovely animals. Thanks for the visit.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on January 03, 2012:

These are beautiful cats Alicia and those kittens are impossibly cute. It's a shame that yet another species is under threat in the wild, and we can only hope that sand cats can be adequately protected

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 02, 2012:

Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Martie! I love nature and animals and enjoy writing about these topics. It's interesting that the sand cat is in some ways similar to a domestic cat and yet in other ways very different. It looks like it could be cuddled, but I'm sure that we would have a nasty shock if we tried to do that!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 02, 2012:

Hi, Maren Morgan. It's great that there are some zoos that help animals! Thanks for the comment.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on January 02, 2012:

Oh, they are beautiful and adorable, but, of course, wild and not to be cuddled. Alicia, you are brilliant in this niche. I love to read your work and would like to read many more during 2012.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on January 02, 2012:

Fascinating info. Go, Cincinnati Zoo!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 02, 2012:

Thank you, drbj. The kittens' eyes are appealing! It's interesting that animals living in similar habitats often have similar ways of dealing with the environment.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on January 02, 2012:

Fascinating and well done, Alicia. Voted up. Sand cats are charming and those kits have 'take-me-home' eyes. I have also written about a smll nocturnal animal that lives in those deserts - the 'sand puppy' or "Naked Mole Rat." Similar habits. Different species.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 01, 2012:

Hi, A.A. Zavala. I agree - sand cats are cool animals! Thanks for the visit.

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on January 01, 2012:

Very cool looking animal!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 01, 2012:

Hi, Rochelle. Yes, sand cats do look adorable! It's very hard to remember that they are wild creatures and not domestic animals. Thank you for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 01, 2012:

Hi, Linda. No, I wouldn't want to bring a sand cat home either! They're cute, but they are wild animals. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on January 01, 2012:

Yes they are adorable and amazing. They probably would not appreciate the hugs we would like to give them. Thanks for doing them justice.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 01, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, KathyH! I appreciate your visit.

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on January 01, 2012:

Alicia-What an intriguing hub you've written on these cats. They do look like domestic cats but I sure wouldn't bring one home. It's hard to believe these cats can survive in the hot desert. Excellent writing and loved the video as well.

KathyH from Waukesha, Wisconsin on January 01, 2012:

Wow, are they ever beautiful cats! So interesting! I had never heard of them before, either. Thanks for sharing! :) Voted up and very interesting! :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 01, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, Susan. I think that the sand cat is beautiful, too! I hope that you enjoy the videos.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on January 01, 2012:

I'd never heard of the sand cat before reading your hub. What a beautiful cat. Very interesting and education hub. I am just on my way out but will come back and revisit your hub tomorrow as I did not have time to watch the videos which I want to see.